Portland Winter Escapes

Come Hell or High Water
  |  Gorp.com

Although visions of on-water activities often bring to mind sultry sunshine, most regional rivers are too low during August's dog days to allow quality boating. Jim Vergin, president of the Oregon Kayak & Canoe Club, doesn't even get his kayaking gear out of the closet until late fall, when "flow levels on many rivers are double to quadruple the rate in summer months." Popular river sections can transform in weeks from carefree family floats for tubes and canoes to playgrounds for hard-core enthusiasts. James McMullen, an instructor at Ebb & Flow Paddlesports, agrees that "for good paddlers, winter is the season," but good is the operative word when faster currents, frequent hazards, and colder water can combine in a synergistic disaster recipe for the inexperienced. "It's absolutely mandatory to wear proper gear because hypothermia is a serious possibility," says McMullen. Such gear would include a drysuit over several layers of warm wicking fabrics, neoprene gloves, booties, and a hat or hood.

We may tame the river, but we'll never control it. The Sandy River flows coy and inviting at the Dodge Park put-in. Steel-gray and slow, with dimpled eddies and a short riffle, she can lull the would-be boater into a false sense of security. Don't buy it. Push out into the current in your kayak and loosen up; ride the riffle, execute a few turns and fasten all those buckles and snaps. Unless the surge and roar of serious whitewater are second nature, the next half-mile will forever change good-natured first impressions of the Sandy.

Rounding the first bend, the current gains momentum and Pipeline Rapids drifts into view: a roiling class III smear below the namesake culvert carrying Portland's municipal water supply. Stay to the left, and before reaching the three-foot waves, paddle like hell for the bank—not to drag your boat back to the security of the abandoned auto, but to scout a route through the boulders and make sure no trees have tangled amid the churning soup of heavy winter runoffs. There are two options for novices at Pipeline: try to avoid the big hole at the bottom rapid, or resign yourself to blasting through the big hole at the bottom of the run. Regardless, once under way the delicate line between intent and execution will blur in an instant, and you'll probably wash through that hole like a rag doll on spin cycle.

The next seven and half miles to Oxbow Park are a gorgeous celebration, rain or shine, of slow-moving solitude filtered through the euphoria of near-death experience. Sandstone cliffs rise from the winding waterway, barren trees lining the high banks. Ducks pulse past in whirring bursts of wingbeats and great blue heron rise from obscured nooks, laboring upstream with graceful wingbeats to surprise you again around the next bend. And, stretch after stretch, the lolling serenity is interrupted by the exciting toss of rapids—often challenging but none as technical as Pipeline.

On the hydrometer of local whitewater opportunities, the Dodge Park to Oxbow stretch is a relatively tame one. Further upstream on the Sandy are class IV rapids that relegate Pipeline to categorical simplicity, as do sections of the equally close Mollala and Clackamas (home of renowned whitewater rodeo site "Bob's Hole"). Slightly further afield are the Santiam, White Salmon, Wind, Hood, and Lewis Rivers, all with varying degrees of difficulty, and progressively tougher stretches the further you venture upstream.

To reach the Sandy River from Portland, follow US 26 to the eastern city limits of Gresham. Turn left on Powell Valley Road and follow the signs to Dodge Park, which is at the end of Dodge Park Boulevard. The Oxbow Park take-out is two miles back on Dodge Park Boulevard, then north two miles on Hosner Road.

Soggy Sneakers: A Guide to Oregon Rivers ($19, The Mountaineers) is generally considered the bible for the when, where, and how of local whitewater opportunities. Adrenaline junkies with no previous experience (or those who need to brush up before bucking winter torrents), should call Alder Creek Kayak Supply (503-285-0464; www.aldercreek.com) for a four-week full-immersion kayak course for $450. Alder Creek also rents kayaks ($30/day) and drysuits ($30/day), for those long on river smarts but short on gear.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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